EIPC Technical Snapshot: Business Outlook

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A headline in a Sunday newspaper had caught John Ling’s eye as he composed the invitation to this fourth EIPC seminar: “Now, more than ever, we need to talk.”

“Better communication with colleagues can help in these turbulent times. Manufacturing industry continues, in spite of all the obstacles, and the need to keep informed has not lessened. Thus, it is that EIPC has decided to run another technical webinar, which is just like one of our conferences, except that you do not have to travel, you do not have a beer with colleagues, you do not enjoy excellent food, and you do not enjoy convivial company. But we do not live in normal times, and some things are not the same. Manufacturing PCBs, however, remains comfortingly complex.”

Kirsten_Smit-Westenberg_0121.jpgBusiness Outlook
The EIPC team, led by Executive Director Kirsten Smit-Westenberg did its usual exemplary job of organising and coordinating the fourth in a series of Technical Snapshots on January 20, which included a keynote business outlook from Walt Custer. The webinar attracted an online audience of over 70 and was moderated by EIPC President Alun Morgan.

Live from the U.S., with the Golden Gate Bridge as his Zoom backdrop, Walt Custer gave his business outlook for the global electronics industry with an emphasis on Europe.

walt_custer_0121.jpg“What’s going to happen next? 2020 was an awful year. Most of the reviews indicate that things are looking brighter as we enter 2021, but COVID is still the biggest concern,” he said. The timing of EIPC’s webinar coincided with America’s presidential inauguration ceremony; Custer expects that the change in administration will have a positive effect, and that the world will see major changes in the way the U.S. behaves.

Global manufacturing is expanding, the terms of Brexit have been agreed, and there are signs of a rebound in manufacturing in Europe.

Current figures from the World Bank forecast the real rate of global economic growth to be 4.0% for 2021, after an estimated -4.3% for 2020. The Euro-area has shown the largest contraction at -7.4% compared with -3.6% for the U.S., but growths of 3.5% and 3.6% respectively are forecast. China maintained positive growth of 2.0% in 2020, and this was forecast to increase to 7.9% in 2021. Global growth is expected to strengthen as vaccination continues.

Purchasing Managers Indices are indicating expansion for the Eurozone, especially for Germany, and European electronics products production have shown a sharp recovery. Automotive electronics have been hit very hard, both in Europe and North America, but both markets are now recovering. The aero sector remains in serious trouble, although instrumentation and control electronics are recovering. There has been an upturn in medical electronics in Europe, and world-wide shipments of personal computers have shown substantial growth because more people are working from home.

Turning his attention to the semiconductor industry, Custer commented that shipments continued to grow at about 6% per year, although not as strongly as in the 2017-18 cycle, and there was significant growth in semiconductor capital equipment, anticipating the next upturn. European semiconductor market data collated by DMASS indicate that growth is becoming positive again, although Europe represents only a relatively small percentage of the world total.

The combined revenues of Custer’s composite of global EMS and ODM companies had shown a 7% increase in Q3 of 2020 compared with the same quarter in 2019; Taiwan had reached an all-time peak in December, although European assembly had not yet recovered to pre-2020 levels.

Custer’s comments on the printed circuit board market began with detailed figures for a broad composite of Taiwanese and Chinese manufacturers, which continued a rising trend, up 3.4% in 2020 compared with 2019.

His figures for Europe were based on data generously shared by Michael Gasch and Hans Friedrichkeit, whose contributions he gratefully acknowledged.  

Gasch estimates that revenues in Europe were likely to have declined between 15–18% to about 1.5 million euro, worse that they had been in 2009 after the financial crisis. His explanation was that at the beginning of 2020 Europe did not know what was in store—lockdowns and panic in the second quarter, false security in the third, and shortages and price increases in the fourth quarter. Additionally, a shortage of freight containers might have hampered logistics. The next big issue expected will be a “price-tsunami” coming from Asia. High demand in the automotive and communication industries, together with shortages in copper, glass cloth, and resins, are likely to lead to panic buying, and double and triple bookings. Companies’ ability to supply PCBs will be influenced by their access to sufficient quantities of laminates.

Hans_Friedrichkeit.jpgFriedrichkeit was concerned about the possibility of a double dip in southern Europe for the fourth quarter of 2020. Overall, the Eurozone had contracted by approximately 7% in 2020 and is expected to grow by 4% in 2021. GDP growth in southern Europe is likely to be higher than in Germany, but this will hardly offset the loss from 2020.

Lockdowns in November adversely affected the German economy, and in 2020 the decline in GDP was about 5.0%. Because of current lockdowns, the economy is expected to grow by only 0.5% in the first quarter of 2021, although optimism is growing among German exporters of chemicals, electrical equipment, and automobiles.

Friedrichkeit commented that PCB production in Europe had peaked at 1.9 million euro in 2018, shrank by 8.2% in 2019 before the COVID pandemic, and by another 12.1% in 2020. He expects this to bottom-out in 2021 but predicted that the number of PCB manufacturers would reduce further to 187 in 2019 and 175 in 2020. German PCB production contracted by 10.4% year-on-year in 2019 and by a further 10.9% in 2020. By comparison, Swiss and Austrian PCB production shrank by 8.2% in 2019 and 4% in 2020, partly because of their customers in the medical sector. The Italian PCB industry had been hardest hit, with contractions of 8.4% in 2019 and 15.5% in 2020.

Copper prices are continuing to rise amid significantly increasing demand for batteries for e-mobility, and charges for sea freight from China to Europe have risen massively, leading to increased prices and longer lead times for copper-clad laminates. The shortage of shipping containers because of Brexit and increased storage is a further complication.

Custer’s graph of world PCB monthly shipments put Europe’s position into a meaningful perspective, with the Taiwan-China component trending up toward the $4 billion level and the European line comparatively flat, somewhere near $150 million. European business has improved, but the possibility of a double-dip recession due to COVID remains an area of concern. He believes that the U.S. presidential change will have a stabilising effect on the geopolitical situation. Although manufacturing is recovering, automotive and aerospace production have been hit hard and the service and travel sectors remain in major recession.

What can we expect for 2021? The outlook is brighter provided that the COVID situation can be managed. Eurostat data shows European PCB production by month to be above the trend line. Purchasing managers’ indices are now in positive territory, indicating that manufacturing is expanding in all areas of the world, and Euro-area economic data shows that the corner has been turned. Custer concluded was that things are indeed looking better, and he once again thanked Michael Gasch and Hans Friedrichkeit for their help.


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